The Roast Issue
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Amitava Kumar

At the MLA with Jeff

This isn’t by far my worst MLA moment. But it is something that has happened more than once. It involves being in the elevator with Jeff Williams.

There is a particularly maddening ritual that gets enacted in the elevators at the more crowded hotels during the MLA. People enter and do the quick scan, reading the name tags, or simply checking faces. Talk is muted. Everything you’ve hated about academia can be found pressed in that one-minute ride in the elevator: excruciating status consciousness, clash of fashions, bad conversation, lack of air.

But all of this vanishes with Jeff. Over the course of the last decade and a half, I have seen Jeff at his home or mine only about three or four times. But I can’t count the number of times we have hung out at conferences. Or used to, when I was single and without kids. And, of course, such meetings have involved travel in elevators. This is what happens. Once the elevator gets moving, Jeff will continue talking in an unchecked voice about whatever we have been discussing between ourselves: a friend’s alcoholism, a new romance, the difference between Andrew Ross and Michael Bérubé, pieces in the Chronicle, the asshole who was his Chair, the asshole who wasn’t his Chair, a Hugo Boss suit that someone was wearing, where good food can be found, what wine will go with it, etc. He will share his opinions frankly and without inhibition.

On one occasion, the doors opened and a crowd tried to get in but retreated because there was no space. A woman, a bit older than me, and also a bit shorter, came close but then shrugged her shoulders and drew back.

Jeff said, even as the doors were closing, “That was Elaine Showalter. Did you read her article in the TLS last month?”

As the elevator rose, he offered a neat little disquisition on Showalter’s recent academic output. If I remember correctly, he was disappointed.

The ten people behind me—or was it thirty—comprised his silent audience. I certainly was silent. And probably staring at the floor because I didn’t want to look at the faces reflected in the metal.

Why does he do it? I don’t believe he is even conscious of doing this, and who knows whether better friends than me have pointed this out to him. But I think his behavior can be linked straightforwardly to his editorial practice. Even at the level of the sentence, and certainly in the overall structure of the essays that he writes, his words always lean toward conclusiveness. His fully declarative starting lines are often, in fact, conclusions of one sort or another. The rest of the piece is just a journey into clarity.

If you were looking for a theory of elevator behavior, this would be it: an editor who is capable of writing “blah-blah” in the margins of your prose would like to get to the point quickly. He isn’t going to hide behind polite, meaningless phrases. He is riding on his certain judgment, and has nothing to hide from anyone. The elevator will get to its destination when it will, but our editor will make sure we get there first, even if it embarrasses the hell out of you.

Amitava Kumar was for several years a member of the minnesota review advisory board even though one of his first pieces for the journal was rejected by Mike Sprinker with the words “This ain’t MTV Unzipped.”